Editor’s note: Kannur, the northern district of Kerala, hit the headlines for a spate of political violence that saw two murders in just 48 hours last month. The murders have given rise to fears that the cycle of violence, which had ebbed to an extent in the last few years, may be returning to haunt the regions. The new political context – the state ruled by the CPM-led LDF and the Centre ruled by BJP-led NDA – makes the situation in Kannur all the more complex, since the key parties that are involved in the violence are the CPM and BJP. Firstpost travelled to Kannur, probing the historical, sociological and communal dynamics of the political violence in the region. This is the first in a five-part series from ground zero.
In the run up to the Kerala assembly elections in May 2016, many had expressed fear that if Pinarayi Vijayan becomes the chief minister, the political scene in the state will become more turbulent.
The fear has come true with the state witnessing a steep increase in not only political clashes but also attacks by criminal and quotation gangs since the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by the Communist Party of India(Marxist) leader assumed power in the state.
According to official sources, Kannur, Vijayan's home district, alone has reported as many as 301 incidents of political violence in the first four months of his tenure. The northern district, which is considered the cradle of communist movement in Kerala, is the epicentre of political violence in the state.
Though clashes involving all major parties occur in Kannur, the district has gained notoriety as the killing fields of Kerala, because of the unrelenting conflict between the CPI(M) and the Rashtriya Swayamseva Sangh (RSS). Killings and counter killings have become the order of the day in Kannur since the Sangh Parivar started carving out a space in the communist bastions. The violence involving the workers of the CPM, RSS and BJP combine has claimed more than 250 lives and left hundreds maimed in the district in the last five decades.
The post-poll violence that began with a bomb attack on the victory rally of the ruling party on the counting day on 19 May have left seven people dead and 171 injured so far. Apart from this, one BJP worker died in a bomb explosion in the district, while handling bombs kept in his house.
CPM activists, who traditionally nurse hostility against workers of the rival parties, have been trying to settle scores everytime the party comes to power. Political analysts say this is because they are confident that the party-led governments will protect them. An analysis of the official statistics related to the incidents of political violence since 1991 obtained from the Kannur district police headquarters show an increase in the reported cases of political violence during every term of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by the CPM compared to that of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
For example, the number of political murders went up from a mere eight during the 1991-96 term of the UDF government to 28 during the 1996-2001 when LDF was in power. The number of murders came down to six during the subsequent term of the UDF government from 2001 to 2006. This shot up to 27 during the 2006-11 LDF term and came down to 11 during the last UDF government term.
CPM workers feel emboldened to settle political scores during their government's term, since the party, which always holds the home portfolio, has established a system to protect the workers who are involved in tackling the party's rivals. According to the system, the party uses specially recruited and trained gangs to kill the political rivals. Noted writer Umesh Babu, who was active in the CPM till 2007, says the party never assigns the task to its regular cadres as it is easy to trace their roots to the party.
"The killer gangs are kept in the periphery. Senior leaders will never contact them directly. They pass the message through local leaders. This is to ensure that the police will never turn towards them," says Umesh Babu, who was expelled from the CPM for questioning the wrong doings of the party.
The writer, who has survived five attempts on his life since his expulsion nine years ago, said that the party leaders also use the criminal gangs to eliminate rebels within the party. The practice is to kill the rebels and pass the blame to the rival camp. The writer also said that the criminal gangs were ready to carry out the tasks assigned to them by the CPM as they are confident that the party will protect them. The party provides safe haven to them in its pocket boroughs, which are known in Kannur as party villages.
Apart from CPM, the RSS and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the UDF, also have such villages, where outsiders and the police have very little access. The Kannur police have identified 50 such villages in the district. Umesh Babu said that the RSS and the BJP were also following the CPM style in eliminating their rivals and providing protection to them after committing the crime. Like the CPM, the RSS and the BJP also maintain criminal gangs. They are under the control of RSS karyavahaks, who mostly do not belong to Kerala.
After harbouring the criminals in the party villages, the parties misguides the police by planting false accused and witnesses, says a senior police officer at Kannur. He said several police men in Kannur were knowingly accepting the list, especially that of the CPM.
"These are the policemen who are loyal to the party. The CPM has sizeable number of such cops in the force. The party-led government posts only such committed cops in sensitive areas. Officers, who try to defy the party, are intimidated and even attacked by the musclemen of the party," he said.
"All parties in Kannur have large pool of volunteers, who are ready to own crimes. These people are ready to oblige the parties as they get handsome rewards. Moreover, they know that their cases will not stand judicial scrutiny," says the officer, who requested anonymity.
This is one reason why there is little conviction in political murder cases in Kannur. Even though 173 CPM activists were arrested in connection with 21 murder cases in the last ten years, no one has been convicted so far. Most of the arrested people are acquitted either by the lower court or the higher court.
On the contrary, there have been mass acquittals in several such cases in the recent past. The high court had in February this year acquitted a total of 26 CPM workers who were sentenced to life by trial courts in two political murder cases. The court could not find their direct involvement in the crimes.
A classic example of arraigning false accused was seen in the sensational murder of Jayakrishnan a Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha leader. The Supreme Court found that four of the five accused, who were sentenced to death by the trial court, were falsely arraigned. The apex court acquitted them and commuted the death sentence of the other to life term. The murder had shocked Kerala as Jayakrishnan was lynched to death in front of the students in a school where he taught in December 1999.
The parties have battery of senior advocates to plead the cases of the planted accused. If in any case, the advocates fail to ensure the acquittal of these accused, the parties support their families as long as they are in jail. The CPM additionally tries to free them when it comes to the power and provide them jobs. The party uses the mass remission provision to prematurely release the planted accused from jail. The 1996 LDF government led by late E K Naynar had freed as many as 610 life-term convicts after they served eight years of jail term. The 2006 LDF government headed by V S Achuthanandan had released 25 life-term prisoners by commuting their sentence.
The BJP and the UDF had alleged discrimination in the selection of prisoners for the remission. They had alleged that the government had let off only prisoners sympathetic to the Left parties. Curiously, the UDF government has also started using the provision to free their favourites.
The BJP fears that the appointment of P Jayarajan, who is an accused in two sensational murder cases currently being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), as a member of the Jail Advisory Committee recently by the Pinarayi government could be aimed at paving the way for freeing the party men lodged in jails in connection with various cases.
District Superintendent of Police Kori Sanjaykumar Gurudin, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, claimed that he had stopped the practice of police blindly accepting the list of the accused and witnesses supplied by political parties. "I take care to ensure that only the real culprits involved in the incidents of violence are arrested. This could many times lead to delay in making the arrests. We are ready to take the blame as we firmly believe that the violence could be brought to an end only if actual culprits are punished," said Gurudin.
The police officer claimed that the police, however, were able to arrest most of the real culprits involved in the recent murders. According to him, the police have nabbed 12 CPM workers and 17 BJP workers in connection with four of the seven murders reported from Kannur since the new government came to power.
Gurudin said that he was personally monitoring all the cases to ensure that his men in the field did not act under political influence. The police officer said that he had not faced any interference from political parties to influence the investigation.
Political observers have been predicting a spurt in political violence in Kannur after the assumption of power by Pinarayi since he is widely seen as a product of the culture of political violence haunting the district.